Seeing past ‘the other’ to common humanity

It is so easy to say, “They are different. They’re not like us.” It gives you an out – you can turn your back and walk away. We do it every day, when we look at the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill. It’s understandable. We protect ourselves.

It’s what many of us do these days with the situation in Syria and its neighboring countries. We see the images of destroyed cities with fleeing refugees and nonstop violence. We see images of the dead and wounded and we say, “This has nothing to do with my life.”

When we do that, we turn millions of innocent people affected by this tragic situation into the “other.” We build a wall between us and them.

Occasionally, there are cracks in that wall. Last September, the world saw the images of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead on a beach in Turkey. He was in a group of refugees trying to make their way to Greece when their boat capsized. We looked at that picture and thought, “That could be any child — that could be my child.” And for a short while, these refugees were no longer the “other.” Many wanted to help.

Pope Francis has done his best to tear down that wall. Not long after assuming the papacy, he went to the Italian island that is the landing spot for so many fleeing poverty and violence, hoping for peace and safety. Many die in the attempt. The Pope continued to call for, and demonstrate, compassion and love as the refugee stream into Europe grew stronger.

Recently, I had an opportunity to leap over the proverbial wall and take a trip to visit refugee facilities and meet people in the countries neighboring Syria. I did this with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the official overseas humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. CRS is one of our country’s largest such organizations working throughout this region of the world.

When you get there, any idea that these people are the “other” disappears. In fact, the refrain that kept going through my mind was, “They are just like us.”

The Syrian refugees I met are not ISIS militants — they are the victims of those terrorists. They are just as stunned and horrified by their acts as we are.

The destroyed cities that you see on TV are not the backdrop of some war movie. Those shattered buildings were once the homes where refugee families lived lives that would not seem foreign to us at all. They worked as teachers, doctors, engineers or construction workers. Some of the women were “soccer moms” shuttling kids from school to practice and then back home. The refugees enjoyed their time with family – their children, parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents and friends. Their homes were well-furnished. They had washing machines, air conditioners, and hobbies.

And then, suddenly, their lives were upended by this brutal war that is now in its sixth year. Persecution by ISIS is all around them. They fled, just as we would in that situation. They had to leave belongings behind and depend on the compassion and assistance of strangers. Many of us now only see them as the “other” who averts our stares. We mostly think, “They are different, they are not like us. They might be terrorists trying to get to the U.S.”

I kept going back to the Bible, to the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus tells his disciples, “Whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers, you did for me.”

The refugees I encountered were not hopeless. They were trying to get on with their lives. They are trying to figure out how to make a living, to educate their kids, while they love and care for each other. They could still laugh. And they could still cry.

But they challenged my preconceived notion of who refugees are. I knew that, through no fault of their own, they had become “the least of my brothers and sisters,” and that I had to do something for them. So I pray for them in my church. I ask my representatives in Congress to continue to increase the generous support that the United States has provided these refugees. I urge our government to do everything possible to help negotiate an end to the war in Syria. I contribute to groups that are helping, like Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

And whenever I get the chance, I tell people what I saw there. I tell them that their own comfortable lives with nice homes and families could just as easily be disrupted — by a tornado, a flood, or violence. If anything like that were to happen, you would not want to be looked on as “the other.” You wouldn’t. You would want to be seen as someone who needs compassion and help. Because, like the Syrian refugees that I met, you would want to get back on your feet and get to work reconstructing your life.

So I ask people to recall the ending of the parable of the Good Samaritan. After a person is beaten, stripped and left for dead, the young man in the story is asked “who was this person’s neighbor?” He replies, ‘the one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus tells him, ‘go and do likewise.’ That exhortation is for us as well. When we see the refugees as our neighbors - not as ‘the other’ – we need to show them merciful compassion, kindness and help.

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Steve Swope was ordained in 2008 to the Permanent Diaconate in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and serves at St. George Catholic Church in Newnan. He is a Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Global Fellow Educator.